Why a hotel is not necessarily liable for lobby theft

Liability of hotels for criminal acts of third persons was the subject of a recent lawsuit. The decision nicely reinforces a well-established rule that favors hotels. The plaintiff was conducting business with several others in the lobby of defendant hotel. One of the group, but not plaintiff, was a paying guest. After their work was completed, at approximately 9 p.m., a stranger entered the hotel through the front door, stole plaintiff’s handbag and exited through the same door. Plaintiff sued the hotel claiming negligence. It denied responsibility.

An inn owes its guests (paying customers plus their visitors) a legal duty to use reasonable care to protect them whenever an injury is foreseeable. The key word is foreseeable. If an injury is not foreseeable, no legal duty exists to guard against it. Thus, there are unfortunate circumstances that occur and cause injury, yet the hotel is not liable.

Plaintiff identified four occurrences she claimed should have put the hotel on notice. She was rebuffed by the court on all four points.

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Plaintiff first argued the hotel should have anticipated criminal activity because a youth soccer team was staying at the hotel. Apparently in plaintiff’s mind, most young people are prone to criminal activity. The court rejected this stereotype and ruled that the presence of junior athletes did not increase the foreseeability of a pocketbook theft in the lobby.

Plaintiff next cited 15 calls to police by the hotel in the eight months before the theft. The court did not find these sufficient to create foreseeability of a stolen purse for two reasons. First, the hotel’s police report log indicated only that police had been called and the reason therefore; it did not state whether any of the calls were found to have merit. Second, the incidents described in the log were dissimilar in nature from the thievery. Further, the only occurrence in the lobby happened seven months prior, and involved escorting an unruly person out of the lobby, not a larceny. 

Plaintiff also claimed that the hotel’s security protocols were inadequate. The court rejected this argument because, even if true, this does not establish that the handbag theft was foreseeable. Without a duty created by foreseeability, security protocols are “irrelevant.”

Finally, plaintiff claimed to have seen a suspicious person casing the hotel lobby on the day of the theft. The court did not agree that this circumstance would have given the hotel reason to know that a personal item was likely to be stolen from the lobby. 
Upshot? Case dismissed.

Clearly, no hotel wants its patrons to suffer an injury or loss while on the premises, and appropriate precautions should be taken. However, if an incident happens, this case teaches anew that liability does not necessarily follow.